Upon moving to Belfast to work as a sommelier in July of 2017, I – like many from the Republic – was uncertain of what to expect. Having visited a handful of times, I knew enough to know it was not the city of conflict it had been as recently as the early 90’s.
Yet still I was beleaguered with what I knew to be exaggerated preconceptions. In spite of knowing myself to be misled, what I found upon arrival surprised me – Belfast is booming!
By now everyone is copping on to the prodigious work of the Northern Ireland Tourism Board in attracting global attention to Titanic Belfast and the various shooting locations for HBO’s Game of Thrones.
What they don’t see are the myriad of new restaurants and hotels adorning the pavements of the Titanic and Cathedral Quarters, the imposing columns of cranes framing the mountainous skyline that herald a city on the rise – one is reminded of Dublin in the early 00’s.
Where there is demand, supply must surely follow and so we have seen in Ireland, North and South, the evolution of a niche but growing market for premium and craft beverages demonstrated most clearly by the craft beer revolution and gin craze.
Despite the evident economic gain from a more socially open and internationally accessible city, the feeling one gets on the ground is that this wasn’t entirely planned. Even after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Belfast remained politically restricted for a time whilst the Celtic Tiger roared in Dublin, but Belfast seems like a young person’s city right now.
There is a vibrant and contemporary feel to the city. At the heart of it, youth has always been the truest catalyst and director of social progress, regardless of who joins the march later, and that is very much the feeling one gets here. As an aspiring sommelier, this phenomenal demand for the diverse range of potions of both brewers and distillers has prompted me to question where in all this do those fermenters of wine fit in?
During my university days, the wine of students and young people always came straight off a supermarket shelf, as it did for many other demographics. Whilst this still is and always will be true, in Dublin, quality wine has diffused from the confinement of often-exclusive restaurants into the relaxed atmosphere of the modern wine bar.
Not only does this shed much of the pretension and stigma surrounding wine but it also allows younger, less affluent consumers to experience these wines and to develop a palate and an appreciation for the stories behind them.
It was to my amazement that I discovered this phenomenon absent in Belfast, but why? With such positive growth in hospitality – not just in restaurants but also premium craft beer and cocktail bars – one would expect wine bars to be an integral aspect of that development. Well it seems to be in the area of greatest growth and promise that also lies the greatest obstacle for wine in Belfast: Northern Irish alcohol licensing laws.
NI alcohol legislation is stricter than that of the Republic. There are a finite number of licenses so new applicants must wait for an existing holder to surrender its license prior to applying for it. The cost of purchasing the license is extraordinary and the County Court may deny application for a variety of reasons.
What all this means is that the opening and running of a wine bar without the legal requirement of also serving food is virtually impossible under the current laws.
Despite this, there is one wine bar in the city worthy of particular note, Ox Cave. Whilst effectively an extension of the adjacent restaurant Ox and not earning exemption from the laws, they are showing that there is a demonstrable aspiration amongst both the industry and consumers for diversified wine offerings.
The same, too, goes for the restrictions on the sale of alcohol over the coming Easter weekend (recently ended in the Republic) that cost an estimated £16 million to the NI economy every year. With no government seated in Stormont for well over a year now, the legislation seems unlikely to change soon.
However, there is hope with the hospitality industry united in lobbying for change; influential voices such as those of famed restaurateur Michael Deane and Hospitality Ulster lead the charge.
Notwithstanding these impediments, wine culture is unquestionably on the rise here. Michael Deane’s Michelin starred Restaurant Deanes Eipic offer a full and bespoke wine pairing with each of the enticing tasting menu courses and sommelier Didier Nyeceront works passionately to select wines that will enhance and harmonise with this ever-evolving menu.
Customers encountering Deanes Eipic for the first time often leave with, not only an incredible culinary experience but also, a newfound appreciation of what quality wine can be and a yearning to taste more.
Jane Boyce MW – Master of Wine and Fine Wine Manager at JN Wines – finds it fascinating that so many consumers end up at JN Wine after trying an interesting wine in a restaurant, when conventional logic would indicate the opposite. She adds, “People are also getting over the fact that interesting wines don’t have to be elitist and that is important”.
In retail too, independent wine merchants/distributors such as JN Wine, Direct Wine Shipments and The Vineyard are evidence of local people’s desire for a diverse product offering away from the uniformity of the supermarkets.
Susan Rees DipWSET – Wine Development Manager at DWS – says that local consumers are becoming interested in where food and wine comes from. It’s not just the tourists and international golfers that will buy the premium or interesting bottles, but in order for locals to join in, the development of a trusting relationship with the consumer through educated staff is absolutely essential.
This was echoed by Peter Morris Wilson DipWSET – a wine educator and Vice President of the NI Wine and Spirits Institute – who laments that some consumers are now more educated than staff in the wine industry.
It seems then that for wine culture to truly develop in a significant way, more businesses are going to have to invest in staff training and education as Deanes, JN Wine and DWS have done.
The surge in hospitality development and the ambition to add more Michelin stars to its Résumé implies an optimistic future for wine culture in Belfast. As a sommelier, I feel the consumer’s journey toward exciting wines will continue to begin in the restaurants and independent wine merchants, guided by passionate wine professionals.
Driven by a young, hopeful population, Belfast has been quick to embrace a move towards modernity and openness, held back only by the firm but loosening grip of an antiquated time. As I contemplate what lies ahead for wine culture in Belfast, I am struck by an image of a great ship with its anchor lodged in a rocky outcrop of the seabed. Sails aloft, the wind is at their back and the horizon of opportunity beckons, if only they could reel that anchor in…or cut it loose for good.
Rory Conniffe is a WSET Diploma student and Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. Internationally experienced in fine dining, he currently lives and works in Belfast, plying his trade in Michelin starred restaurant; Deanes Eipic.
Having recently transitioned from business development and sales management back to hospitality, Rory is preparing to pursue higher level Sommelier certification and to expand his professional repertoire to include writing and teaching.